Coleridge and Barfield on Life, Imagination, and Reality

Continuing with Barfield’s (I think masterful) attempt (What Coleridge Thought, 1971) to give the definitive philosophical statement of a thinker who never seems to have gotten around to doing the same for himself, here are a few more reflections…

Barfield judges Coleridge a genius. Perhaps so, but the latter said of his own existant philosophical prose that it looks “like the fragments of the winding steps of an old ruined tower” (Bibliographia Literaria, Ch. 13). With this image, Coleridge seems to admit that, whether he be an architectural genius or not, his readers will certainly have to be if they hope to ascend to the top of the tower to take in the sublime view of the world he was attempting to cook up (in the alchemical sense). In the margins of his library books, in letters to his friends, and in powerful but evasive aphorisms is buried a complete philosophical system. After Barfield’s house cleaning, we are provided with a 200 page book that doesn’t so much sum it all up, as though recounting it in a list, but organizes it in such a way that it begins where it ends and ends where it begins, turning it into a whole made out of parts which themselves are nothing less than the whole (“entire in each and one in all”). Beginning with the metaphysical trinity of Logic, Nature, and Power (Father, Son, and Spirit), he then moves on to Life. Philosophically, if not religiously speaking (i.e., according to reason rather than revelation), we can only aim to end at the realization of the Divine Triunity; we cannot begin there. We must begin, instead, with life, and its partner, death (what Barfield and Coleridge refer to as “outness”).

Coleridge’s theory of life stands not opposite Darwin’s theory but behind it. At first glance, it seems opposed, but this is impossible, since Darwin had no theory of life at all. His was a theory about speciation, leaving life itself to be explained otherwise: he speculates it was “originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one” on the last page of On the Origin of Species. Though he may ultimately have had other cosmological commitments than Coleridge (i.e., of the Newtonian-Cartesian sort), the validity of Darwin’s theory of speciation, so far as it goes, does not rule out the possibility that Coleridge was also right about life. In fact, Coleridge’s theory of life may indeed provide the ontological grounding for the very phenomenon described by Darwin, whereas that described by Newton (atoms in motion governed by fixed laws) does not. Only if we mistake Darwin’s model for how nature really is, rather than one way nature can be made to appeardo we commit the fatal sin of idol worship by fancying the world as essentially dead extended stuff “out there.” So long as we recognize that it is no theory at all, but a hypothesis regarding appearances–not an explanation for an appearance, but a predictive model about how certain appearances lead to other appearances–then Darwin’s remains a crucial insight into the general behavior of life. There is no doubt that inheritance with modification coupled with selection pressures resulting from sex and death can lead to the differentiation of life. But this is no explanation for life. The “how?” and the “what?” of the thing itself transforming through the generations into a variety of species is left unaccounted for. “How?” cannot be explained with a mechanical design, deistic or natural, since life is not built from the outside, but generated from within. Life cannot be put together out of merely external parts, but must be seen to grow from living seeds, each with the formative power of the whole solar system already inside them.

To explain life, Barfield argues, we require a dynamic and thoroughly evolutionary cosmology, since:

“we can never reach and recognize the idea of change [evolution] in nature, if our idea of nature itself is exclusively a picture of bodies already formed [natura naturata]. This very picture however is the one which the Cartesian dichotomy between mind and matter had been busy riveting on the mind of the Western world through the two hundred years before Coleridge’s birth. That it is a false picture; that elementary particles do not merely exist from eternity and keep on setting to partners; that the proposition ‘matter has no inward‘ is a false proposition, was accordingly not simply an interesting metaphysical speculation, but a vital and neglected, or ‘lost,’ verity which he felt he had to re-establish before he could usefully say anything else to his contemporaries upon almost any subject, whether religion, politics, history, imagination, or life” (p. 42, WCT).

To grasp Coleridge requires genius. To grasp the nature of life requires imagination. It is a totally contrary perspective to the one we are used to taking for granted as true, where “substance becomes shadow, and shadow substance”: Coleridge asks us to see imagination as reality. The one reality, the cause and origin of the self, the world, and all things, is nothing other than imagination. So, what is imagination? Creatively discovering its essence was the endless task Coleridge set himself from at least the moment he first read Plato, Plotinus, and Ficino as a teenager (p. 72, WCT), but certainly it began to occupy the bulk of his philosophical attention by the time he was exposed to Wordsworth’s poetry in 1795. By 1817, he had written his clearest and most definitive statement concerning the nature and genesis of imagination:

“Imagination, then, I consider as either primary or secondary. The primary Imagination I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am. The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still identical with the former in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.”

Modern, post-Cartesian common sense is to imagine that imagining happens somewhere inside the head, that it peeks through the inlets of the senses at an external world and more or less represents what is “out there.” Properly speaking, from Coleridge and Barfield’s perspective, we shouldn’t call this sort of idol worship “imagining” at all, but fancying. The difference between imagination and fancy was central to Coleridge’s philosophy (very similar to the distinction between understanding and reason). Imagination is an act of “separative projection” (p. 76, WCT), a will which, like self-conscious thinking, is one with the products of its own productivity. At the primary level, the level of the eternal creation of the macrocosm, this act of imagination takes place without our consciousness. Genius, however, grants some human beings (like Coleridge and Wordsworth) the power to approach self-consciousness of their participatory role in the co-creation of the microcosm at the secondary level: “they know and feel, that the potential works in them, even as the actual works on them” (Biographia Literaria, ch. 13). As Paracelsus put it,

“He who is born in imagination discovers the latent forces of Nature…Besides the stars that are established, there is yet another–Imagination–that begets a new star and a new heaven.”

Ordinary adult human beings are, through education, made entirely unconscious of the activity of secondary imagination, and so can rely only upon fancy to provide them with an understanding of the universe as made up of “fixities and definites” (ibid.). Fancy in the absence of imagination (i.e., understanding without reason) can only lead to the belief that the substance of things is made of inanimate matter, and that mind is but a display and a storehouse of impressions caused by this matter.

On the other hand, Barfield explains,

“for Coleridge, because man did not create himself, there is indeed an actual (I-Thou) relation subject and natural object; but, since man is to be free, it is also a genetic and a progressive one. Phylogenetically that progressive relation is nature. Ontogenetically it is imagination” (p. 77, WCT).

As Coleridge himself put it, drawing on Plotinus,

The first range of hills, that encircles the scanty vale of human life, is the horizon for the majority of its inhabitants. On its ridges the common sun is born and departs. From them the stars rise, and touching them they vanish. By the many, even this range, the natural limit and bulwark of the vale is but imperfectly known. Its higher ascents are too often hidden by mists and clouds from uncultivated swamps, which few have courage or curiosity to penetrate. To the multitude below these vapors appear, now as the dark haunts of terrific agents, on which none may intrude with impunity; and now all a-glow, with colours not their own, they are gazed at as the splendid palaces of happiness and power. But in all ages there have been a few, who measuring and sounding the rivers of the vale at the feet of their furthest inaccessible falls have learned, that the sources must be far higher and far inward; a few, who even in the level streams have detected elements, which neither the vale itself or the surrounding mountains contained or could supply. How and whence to these thoughts, these strong probabilities, the ascertaining vision, the intuitive knowledge may finally supervene, can be learnt only by the fact. I might oppose to the question the words with which Plotinus supposes NATURE to answer a similar difficulty. “Should any one interrogate her, how she works, if graciously she vouchsafe to listen and speak, she will reply, it behoves thee not to disquiet me with interrogatories, but to understand in silence even as I am silent, and work without words.” Likewise in the fifth book of the fifth Ennead, speaking of the highest and intuitive knowledge as distinguished from the discursive, or in the language of Wordsworth, “The vision and the faculty divine;” he says: “it is not lawful to enquire from whence it sprang, as if it were a thing subject to place and motion, for it neither approached hither, nor again departs from hence to some other place; but it either appears to us or it does not appear. So that we ought not to pursue it with a view of detecting its secret source, but to watch in quiet till it suddenly shines upon us; preparing ourselves for the blessed spectacle as the eye waits patiently for the rising sun.” They and they only can acquire the philosophic imagination, the sacred power of self-intuition, who within themselves can interpret and understand the symbol, that the wings of the air-sylph are forming within the skin of the caterpillar; those only, who feel in their own spirits the same instinct, which impels the chrysalis of the horned fly to leave room in its involucrum for antennæ yet to come. They know and feel, that the potential works in them, even as the actual works on them! In short, all the organs of sense are framed for a corresponding world of sense; and we have it. All the organs of spirit are framed for a correspondent world of spirit:  though the latter organs are not developed in all alike.  But they exist in all, and their first appearance discloses itself in the moral being (Biographia Literaria, ch. 12).

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One thought on “Coleridge and Barfield on Life, Imagination, and Reality

  1. Pingback: Coleridge and Scientific Realism | Footnotes to Plato

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